The story of Jonah in the Bible is viewed skeptically by many people because of its miraculous content. Jonah was a prophet who was sent to the town of Ninevah to preach to the people there and tell them to repent and turn to God. Jonah did not want to go to the Ninevites, so he ran away from God and got on a ship. God brought a storm (Jonah 1:4–16) and the ship was nearly destroyed. Jonah realized it was his fault, so he asked the sailors to throw him overboard, and they did. Once Jonah was sent overboard, the storm dissipated. Then, a giant fish (often assumed to have been a whale) swallowed Jonah and he was in the belly of the fish for three days and nights, at which time the fish spewed Jonah onto the shore near Ninevah, likely in full view of the Ninevites (Jonah 1:17; 2:10).
Did a whale really swallow Jonah?
After Jonah appeared in Ninevah, he preached to the people there and they all, including the king, repented and believed in God. This miraculous conversion, alongside the fantastic story of Jonah's experience with the giant fish, or whale, is the reason why people find the book of Jonah difficult to believe. However, a closer examination of history, of the words of Jesus in reference to Jonah's story, and of God's character, shows that perhaps Jonah's story is not so far-fetched as many people think.
History presents a fascinating detail about the Ninevites. They worshipped a god called Dagon, and Dagon was a fish god. He was often depicted as a man wearing a fish, or as a half-man, half-fish creature. Dagon was also worshipped by other ancient people, including the Philistines (Judges 16:23–24; 1 Samuel 5:1–7; 1 Chronicles 10:8–12). We know that the Ninevites worshipped Dagon because of archeological finds—images depicting Dagon found in the remains of their palaces and temples. With this in mind, if the Ninevites saw a man being spewed out of the mouth of a giant fish, it is plausible that they would have believed him to have divine origins, and would have been persuaded to listen to anything he had to say, and to obey his words, which is exactly what the Bible tells us happened (Jonah 3).
An ancient historian by the name of Berosus adds even more validity to Jonah's story. He tells the tale of Oannes, a mythical fish-man who came from the sea and gave the people wisdom. Scholars relate this story to the Babylonian water-god Ea, or Enki, but Berosus used the name "Oannes" which would have been the Assyrian / Ninevite translation of the Greek name "Ioannes" which the Hebrews translated as "Jonah."
These historical details are provocative. We must add to them Jesus' words. "For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here" (Matthew 12:40–41; Luke 11:29–30, 32). Jonah was a prophet in that he spoke truth to the Ninevites, but Jesus treated the details of Jonah's story as a prophecy pointing to his own death, burial, and resurrection. Futhermore, speaking of the unbelieving Jews, Jesus said that "no sign will be given to [this evil generation] except the sign of Jonah" (Matthew 12:39; Matthew 16:4; Luke 11:29). Apparently, Jesus believed the story of Jonah to be true.
This brings us to God's character. We know that Jesus is God (John 1:1–3; John 8:58), and that God does not lie. There is no indication from the text of Jonah's book, nor from the words of Jesus, that the story of Jonah was a fairy-tale or fable. Clearly, Jonah's survival in the belly of the fish, and the repentance of the Ninevites were miracles. Anyone who believes the story of Jesus' resurrection, and has experienced personal repentance and redemption, will acknowledge that these too are miracles. As such, we should have no problem admitting that indeed, Jonah was swallowed by a whale (or great marine animal of some kind).
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